It’s hard to find five more deserving people to add to the already star-studded NASCAR Hall of Fame ranks than the legends that were enshrined in Charlotte on Friday.
Three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart headed up a class that also included five-time NASCAR Cup Series champion car owner Joe Gibbs, 2000 NASCAR Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte, 19-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner Buddy Baker and one of the best engine builders / crew chiefs in the sport’s history Waddell Wilson.
Stewart, 48, is one of the most versatile racers of all-time.
Before becoming a star in NASCAR, Stewart was already forging his legendary status in the open wheel ranks. The Rushville Rocket recorded championships in the World Karting Association, the United Midget Racing Association, USAC National Midget Series and in 1995 Stewart won the USAC Silver Crown championship.
From there, Stewart found success in the Indy Racing League. After winning three races and a championship between 1997 and 1998, Stewart was ready for another challenge — the big bulky NASCAR stock cars.
Stewart was an instant success.
In his rookie season in the NASCAR Cup Series, Stewart captured three victories in his rookie season — an all-time record to this day — and he took home rookie of the year honors.
Over an 18 year career, Stewart would pile on an astonish 49-victories and three championships in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Although Stewart retired from NASCAR Cup Series competition following the 2016 season, he still remains active and is a consistent presence in victory lane in the dirt world.
Gibbs, 79, is now enshrined in two separate sporting league Hall of Fames — the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio and the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The Washington Redskins organization benefited from Gibbs’ impeccable coaching style to the tune of three Lombardi Trophies.
As his NFL coaching career was winding down, Gibbs made the move to NASCAR as a car owner.
After a winless first season in NASCAR, Gibbs’ No. 18 team captured the biggest prize of them all in the opening event of the 1993 season as Dale Jarrett won the Daytona 500. At the time, it was an upset win, but after that day JGR has gone from an admirable upstart team, to an absolute juggernaut.
Gibbs’ race team has now recorded 176 victories in NASCAR’s highest division and he has amassed five Cup Series championships with three different drivers (Stewart, Bobby Labonte and Kyle Busch).
No matter what he’s doing or where he’s at, Gibbs knows how to assemble a team capable of winning — often.
For Labonte, he started his racing career in the shadow of his older brother and NASCAR Cup Series champion Texas Terry Labonte. However, it didn’t take long for Terry’s determined little brother to make a name for himself.
In 1991, just his second full-time season in the then NASCAR Busch Series (now Xfinity Series), Labonte took home two wins and the overall points championship.
Labonte was thrust into NASCAR Cup Series competition in 1993.
In his first two seasons, Labonte struggled to compete for victories while running for Bill Davis, but then for 1995 Labonte was hired to drive the No. 18 machine for Joe Gibbs Racing. In their first season together, Labonte and Gibbs won three races and Labonte proved he was a race-winning to potential championship contending driver.
As the 1990’s came to a close, Labonte continued to rack up wins and he became a more consistent driver with each passing season. This all culminated in Labonte beating Dale Earnhardt in 2000 to secure the NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Labonte would continue running full-time in the NASCAR Cup Series until 2012. He finished his Cup Series career with 21 wins.
Baker, the son of NASCAR champion Buck Baker, was known as The Gentle Giant.
At 6’6″ Baker had one of the most intimidating physiques in NASCAR history and he was a transcendent personality. As a racer, he had a lead foot as evidenced by Baker becoming the first driver in NASCAR history to turn a lap of more than 200-miles per hour. And he had a knack for getting it done on the largest of tracks.
Baker’s career pinnacle was capturing the victory in the 1980 Daytona 500.
Baker, who only was able to run the full schedule three times in his 35 year career, somehow pieced together 19 wins despite the mechanical instability of his race cars over the years.
Once Baker left the race track as a competitive driver, he became possibly the most entertaining analyst in NASCAR television history. Unfortunately Baker passed away at the age of 74 after a bout with lung cancer.
Wilson was a great crew chief and an elite engine builder.
Engines built by Wilson carried drivers to a grand total of 109 victories and 123 pole positions in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Wilson built motors for Holman-Moody, Harry Ranier (where he won the Daytona 500 with Baker in 1980) and Hendrick Motorsports.
As a crew chief, Wilson won 19 races and finished runner-up in the point standings twice (1981 and 1991).
Joining the legendary competitive inductees in the NASCAR Hall of Fame this year are Edsel Ford and Dick Berggeren.
Ford was awarded with the Landmark Achievement Award, while Berggeren was honored with the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2020 are a very deserving bunch. As we celebrate the achievements of these incredible men, we await who will be selected for the Class of 2021.